Housing Complex

Imagining D.C. Under a Modified Height Act

The second half of the Height Act study conducted jointly by the city and the National Capital Planning Commission is officially underway. And it just got a whole lot more fun.

Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican congressman from California who's become D.C.'s surprising best friend on Capitol Hill, asked the city and the NCPC to conduct a review of the 103-year-old Height of Buildings Act in November, with a deadline of this fall. Phase 1 of the study involved background research and identifying the local and federal interests. Phase 2 concerns economic impact and visual modeling.

So let's get modeling. At a meeting this morning at the NCPC, the presenters laid out four possible approaches to modifying the Height Act, which currently limits heights to the width of the street plus 20 feet, with a cap of 90 feet on residential streets and 130 feet on most commercial streets. (These heights can be further restricted by zoning.) Here's a map of the current height limits in the city:

The first approach considered by the NCPC and the Office of Planning is not to change the Height Act at all—or just to tinker with the regulations for mechanical penthouses. The second is change the street-to-height relationship, so that buildings on certain streets can have more height relative to the width of the street. The third is to raise height limits in selected areas. And the fourth is to raise height limits citywide.

What do these look like? Approach #1 doesn't involve much of a change. Approach #2 could involve changes to certain streets that would look like this:

Approach #3 was broken into three options. The first is to raise height limits just within the L'Enfant City—the original planned city, south of Florida Avenue and west of the Anacostia River. Here's what that would look like from two vantage points (click to enlarge):

The second is to raise height limits just outside the L'Enfant City, on the edge of the "topographic bowl" that encompasses central D.C. From two vantage points in Virginia:

The final option is to raise heights in selected clusters, including Farragut Square, Waterfront Station, Buzzard Point, Poplar Point, Congress Heights, Friendship Heights, and around the corners of M and 22nd streets NW and K and 5th streets NW:

Finally, the third approach is to raise height limits citywide. This would have the most dramatic effect (and drew the most groans and shaking heads from this morning's audience):

Now, even in this most dramatic option, the Washington Monument still dominates the skyline, though other landmarks like the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial become harder to see. That's partly because the highest option considered only goes up to 200 feet within the L'Enfant City. And it's partly because the model only raises up buildings in these high- and medium-density areas:

What do you think? Which of these options is the best for D.C.? And—at least as relevant—which will the city, the NCPC, and Congress go for?

  • BB

    Raising the height limits around the edge of the city is the best option. Friendship Heights and Tenleytown are so far from the city core that the increased height won't even be noticed.

  • Jonathan Swift

    It's sad that so many can't even accept a modest proposal to raise the height limits. I guess forcing out the poor and keeping rents prohibitively high is the goal of these (usually) progressive District residents.


  • Anon

    While I certainly think raising the heights in the edge of the city is of little impact, I also think it fails to solve much of the problem since it won't satisfy the demand to be closer to downtown. I say continue building tall across the river and leave downtown as is. It was only natural that the neighborhoods east of the Capitol would need to make way for development, regardless of height restrictions.

  • Eighty

    Best option would be to revoke the height limit and let local zoning officials take the reigns, but that's never going to happen.

    Even the most dramatic renderings - the 200'+ limit inside the L'Enfant city and the 225' limit outside manages to preserve all the views from every important angle (corridors/viewsheds, topographic bowls, aerials). That would be my preferred compromise.

    The actual outcome is probably going to be a very modest raise in the height limit near Metro stations outside of the core of the city. Which will accomplish very little for the residents of D.C. and will represent a huge missed opportunity to fix a bad policy.

  • Search Your Feelings

    "I guess forcing out the poor and keeping rents prohibitively high is the goal of these (usually) progressive District residents."

    If you make a negative comment about significant changes to one of the city's most distinctive characteristics you're labeled as someone whose organizing principle is negatively impacting the lives of others?

    Sloppy, incoherent, and uninformed.

  • DC Guy

    I would leave the federal core intact, but raise the limits slightly downtown.

    On the fringes, let building construction begin.

  • Location, location, location

    "I guess forcing out the poor and keeping rents prohibitively high is the goal of these (usually) progressive District residents."

    I'm all for tinkering at the edges with the height limit, but anyone who thinks this is going to mean any real increase in affordable housing is being overly optimistic, to say the least. These will be high-end offices and more high-end apartments and condos. Gentrification will continue and the poor will continue to be forced out. There will simply be more yuppies, guppies, buppies, and aristocrats. There will be more room for those who can afford to live here, and, therefore, a bigger middle class and upper class.

  • Paul

    Friendship Heights and Tenleytown really don't have the infrastructure to support a dense business district of 200' heights. There's only the Red Line, but creating a denser, high-rise commercial center would require enhancing access to major roads, like in Roslyn and Pentagon City. They both have direct highway access. But in NW DC, 270 and the Beltway are miles away. Absent building more roads, these areas are likely to have just incremental development potential, not the signficant density that taller buildings would otherwise provide in a location with better infratructure.

    And to the comment that "no one would notice" significannt height increases in these areas? The folks in Chevy Chase Tenley and AU Park would go nuts - you can take that to the bank!

  • hoos30

    @Paul: That's what zoning is for. The Height Act is a dull, blunt instrument. It's like using a butter knife to perform open heart surgery.

    I say remove the Act completely from every area of the city except the historical, federal core. Then let the local government and people decide where additional height makes sense.

  • Greg

    I just can't even put myself close to the mindset of the folks who think there's something visually appealing worth preserving in this town.

  • http://westnorth.com Payton

    Can't wait to see these renderings up close. At this resolution, very few of these look appreciably different from the viewpoints chosen. Large areas adjacent to downtown could be raised to downtown heights under today's zoning, to start with. Many noted architectural authors have said that a 1:1 height:width ratio is about the highest you can go without feeling confined -- but also that buildings should not be shorter than a 1:3 ratio.

    That said, the most appealing view is the "final" option as seen from Meridian Hill: what looks like a rolling cityscape, almost like looking out across a flatter San Francisco.

    @Paul: Silver Spring and Bethesda do fine without major freeways nearby.
    @Location: Uhm, I'm sure the GOP would love to find this magical factory that can mint a limitless supply of rich people. Adding high-cost housing downtown = rich people will stay there, instead of gentrifying new neighborhoods like Petworth or Trinidad.

  • Kenneth McClintock

    As a frequent visitor to DC, I would not mind a general increase to 130' throughout and perhaps slightly more, 160', on the outskirts. However, there's a lot of areas that can increase density without having to build beyond 130 or 160 feet, depending on location.

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  • Chris hauser

    Who benefits? Who loses?

    And where?

  • http://www.gwu.edu Raise High!

    Metro Center is the heart of downtown, it should have higher buildings.

  • Drez

    This will do nothing for affordable housing. Regardless of how much is built demand will outstrip supply. The only thing that keeps prices low in some areas of DC is real and perceived issues with crime, amenities, and transportation infrastructure.
    That this proposal is coming up now is a direct result and implicit acknowledgement of the strong local real estate market.

  • Patrick

    And why is this even being considered? Because developers make more money when they add floors since incremental costs go up more slowly as floors are added. So. It's always about the Benjamins.
    The poor are being driven out and will continue to be driven out no matter what. That's America. Get used to it. No developer will ever add a penthouse and make it "affordable."
    Except...in Vancouver. There, prescient city fathers decreed that every new housing unit on the island must provide a percentage of units priced so the maid, the busboy, or bootblack can live in the same building with the Billionaire. The result is a vibrant downtown with every kind of store, a range of restaurants (ritz to rags), crowds of people in the evenings, and low crime.
    Fiddling DC's height limit just pours more coins into already bulging pockets.

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  • http://www.ncpc.gov/heightstudy William Herbig

    For anyone wanting a better look at the modeling images, a presentation on the study and related discussion boards are posted online: http://www.ncpc.gov/heightstudy and will be presented at each phase 2 public meeting (August 3-10). Additionally, the discussion boards are installed in the lobby of the National Capital Planning Commission and available for viewing weekdays 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM. Public comment forms are located in our lobby. Feedback collected will be complied along with all other phase 2 input. NCPC is located at 401 9th Street, NW, Suite 500 (north lobby), Washington, DC 20004.

  • jeff

    Some of these comments are bewildering displays of intellectual vacuity. Patrick, I sincerely believe that you are being sincere. But nothing about the status quo of DC - exorbitant demand that vastly outpaces supply - helps poor residents. More housing units will exert gross downward pressure on housing and potentially result in sincere filtering to (1) accomadate demand, (2) decrease costs, (3) allow residents to remain in the city and (4) build density that is greener than the car commuting alternative.

    Under the existing paradigm, basically, all you get is extremenly high housing costs for everyone that are borne disproportioantely on the poor. If we want to ensure poorer residents remain in the city, there a numerous ways to ensure this - inclusionary zoning, set asides, or subsides.

    But nothing - repeat nothing - about the status quo helps a single poor person. Unless you believe poor transportation access and the lack of services should serve a de facto housing program.

    The City's black population has shrunk 20 person in the last 20 years with the height act in place. Psuedo liberals should not be able to use the cloak of the height act to hide their foundational interest in placing their aesthetic wishes against the needs of the districts residents.

  • Dennis

    Greg: Super-productive and insightful comment. Then why do you live here? Move to Falls Church or something and let people who actually care talk about it.

    Jeff: Sorry, but Patrick is right. If you think more highrises = more affordable housing, just look at downtown Silver Spring. The rent on my old 1bdrm apartment that was $1400 in a roach-riddled high-rise (that I still loved) is now $1800 after years of new high-rise apartments springing up (and I bet it's still full of roaches too). The new buildings are either "luxury" apartments or people are just willing to pay higher rents for their perceived newness value, and the old buildings can then raise their rents to far higher than they should be, making them less affordable, but still a few bucks cheaper in comparison. If developers were just trying to break even maybe the more height = more affordable housing equation would work, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

  • drez

    It's not that there needs to be an "unlimited" supply of rich people to compete for and make uber-expensive any new housing units, it's just that they must out number the units built.
    Given that DC is an international destination for those who want to live, work, or just invest, that will be a very easy thing to do. So long as DC remains popular demand will always outstrip supply. Regardless of any realistic addition of new units.

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